A Kind of Forgiveness

Edvard Munch: Inger on the Beach, 1889

For much of my life, I was against forgiveness, particularly for men. I held to my anger, proudly. There were no clearance sales on my affection, and I made everyone pay full price for their wrongs. Which is why, when I realized I had forgiven all the men in my life anyway, it was disconcerting. 

I’d had my reasons. I grew up in the Catholic Church, where “forgiveness” was constantly advocated, despite the fact that God did not do much of it Himself. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” we recited at each Mass, “but only say the word and I shall be healed.” God absolved our sins in confession, but only if we listed everything bad about ourselves first. God’s forgiveness was a passive-aggressive note from the author of Creation, a reminder of exactly how much we’d done wrong. 

But if God did not forgive, women had to. Women in the Church were pressured to forgive men constantly, and rarely for good reason. Sexual violence was something women and girls in my church were sometimes asked to forgive. So was domestic violence, and child abuse, and so was a husband who cheated on you, or talked down to you, or made you call in to his work to say he had the flu whenever he was hung over, which he was every Monday, until he got fired and you lost your house. “Even if they don’t repent, we still have to forgive,” Focus on the Family tells us, in its marriage-counseling section. Women were expected to do the work of forgiveness so that men did not have to do the work of change. 

The results are all around us—in the church and out. Christian relationship expert Ruthie Dean writes that the female abuse survivors she interviews typically “believe they have a forgiveness deficit rather than a toxic man in their life.” The author Ijeoma Oluo writes that the letters she gets from abuse survivors contain questions like “Why can’t I forgive?” and “What is wrong with me?” Salma Hayek did not report her abuse at the hands of Harvey Weinstein because she believed she was demonstrating her “capacity for forgiveness” by letting him off the hook. 

I believed that the whole sorry spectrum of male cruelty and disrespect—everything from talking over female colleagues at meetings to sexual assault—was cushioned by the presumption of female forgiveness. I tried to remove the cushion. Like the Lord God before me, I could remember each time I had been sinned against, but unlike the Lord God, I was here on earth, and thus able to bring it up over dinner. Men’s comfort was based on women agreeing to go easy on them; I decided I would not be easy. 

It was, I admit, grandiose to designate myself the angry Old Testament God of gender relations, especially given that what I refused to forgive was largely run-of-the-mill bad boyfriend stuff. One man had asked me out by showing me his diary, in which he’d written that “[Sady] isn’t the prettiest girl, or the smartest, but she’s the one I love.” One reviewed all my outfits in such scathing detail that I began to have panic attacks while shopping. My first love, a hippie with dreamy, stoned, crystal-blue eyes, told me he wanted to live with me in a van in the desert. He then said identical things to my best friend, and then to her roommate. He even had the routine down to the Depeche Mode song he used to set the mood. Then, when called on his behavior, he said, “Would you ask Jesus not to love everybody?” 

I would. If the only way for Jesus to redeem the sins of humanity was to fuck my best friend’s roommate, humanity would indeed be doomed. And I have told that story many times, because when a man ascribes Messianic powers to his penis, you are obliged, like any apostle, to spread his Word. However, in the past year, as signifiers of respectable adulthood have accumulated around me—the marriage, the baby, the young people telling me I don’t get it—something in the punchline has started to make me queasy. There is a very obvious consideration, one I didn’t previously take into account: the boy in that story was nineteen years old.

How many stupid, cruel things did you do when you were nineteen years old? Or twenty? Or twenty-four, twenty-five? That’s how old the men in my boyfriend stories were. Legal adults, sure, but not grown-ups. Maybe some of us are prepared to run magazines or represent a congressional district at that age, but most of us are disasters. I spent my twenties drunk, underemployed, and treating the world like an obstacle course in some sort of sexual Double Dare, wherein the goal was to have as many humiliating encounters as possible before the buzzer rang. I fail to see why the male characters in my story should be any kinder or wiser than I was. I can no longer summon enough righteousness to laugh.



This is not to say I never had anything serious to forgive. I probably soured on forgiveness for the same reason I was attracted to theatrically dysfunctional men: my father. When I was three years old, my father told our priest that he was going to kill the whole family. He may have meant it—he’d been physically violent toward my mother, who left him, but was ordered to give him visitation rights—but he also liked threatening to kill people. I spent one night, in my teens, hiding at a friend’s house because he’d been sending me death threats. 

He would also sometimes claim to be dying, at which point some sucker would reconcile with him, and then it would be back to getting enraged calls; his health tended to make a miraculous recovery when he got any attention. He would make dark statements about suicide, disappear for just long enough that you thought he was dead, and show up to ask for a favor. My brother (the last of us to cut him off) wound up keeping all my father’s furniture in his bedroom. A full apartment’s worth of furniture, and it was just in there, for months, while my father couch-surfed and did not pay for storage. I can’t blame my brother. You tend to say yes to a parent who’s back from the dead. 

So maybe it all comes down to poor role models. Maybe I dislike forgiveness, not because of some religious or political commitment, but because I’ve learned that forgiving too easily is the fastest way to get a bedroom full of someone else’s furniture. By the time I entered kindergarten, my father had already shown me the worst that men are capable of, and he also showed me they could get away with it. He maxed out my forgiveness, like a thief with a stolen credit card, and left me unable to extend the benefit of the doubt to anyone else. 

I’ve paid therapists to tell me this. They’re not wrong. I don’t presume to tell you what my mother and brother do with their trauma, but I clearly donated mine to the cause. This would also explain why, as I age and childhood recedes, my anger seems to have ebbed away. But the world’s cruelty to women is real; the fact that I was exposed so early meant that I was more conscious of it than luckier children, but patriarchy itself is not subjective. And, if my father gave me my anger, he also showed me that blind anger leads to ruin. It is not despite my father, but because of him, that I began forgiving. 


At some point in the maelstrom of his life, my mother tells me, my father was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. The behavior I’ve described is not how most people with the disorder act. (People with BPD are far more likely to take their anger out on themselves than anyone else—and, like all mentally ill people, they are more likely to be abused than to abuse.) It is how one man with BPD acts… when he is abandoned by his parents, and when he’s raised with the blue-collar masculinity that turned most of his siblings into bikers, and when he avoids therapy, and when he throws his meds down the sink because real men don’t need that shit, and when he self-medicates with Rolling Rock and cocaine, which then turns him violent, which then causes his whole family to leave him, which then triggers his BPD-related abandonment issues to the point where he spends the rest of his life trying either to manipulate or to threaten them into coming back. 

I give you all that biography to tell you this: one of the most pernicious symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder is an inability to take people in context. The afflicted person swings back and forth between extremes of idealization and devaluation, seeing others as either superhumanly good or completely evil. In one moment, with my father, I was the reason his heart kept beating, the best thing in his life. The next moment, I was a disrespectful little bitch and he ought to stop feeding me. The biographical view—seeing people as capable of kindness at some moments and cruelty in others, remembering their good qualities in their bad moments, and vice versa—was not available to him.


This pattern is clearly disabling, when taken as a symptom of an illness. Yet this is, increasingly, the way all of us are taught to think. We live in an era where history is fragmented into discrete, context-less moments, where politics is the art of mass hatred, where the loudest and most hyperbolic opinion wins out. It is not lost on me that—with his constant oscillation between over-the-top enthusiasm and volcanic outrage, his weeks-long torrents of harassment and denunciation whenever someone failed to measure up, his inability to place humans in categories other than Fave or Cancelled—my father was basically a one-man incarnation of everyone’s Twitter feed. 

As living with the culture began to feel like living with my father, it seemed urgent to argue for the biographical view: to root out people’s motives, look for misunderstandings, ask how their flaws might be products of their historical moment or their social context or their own personal damage. I do not think it is coincidental that, as a writer, I was obsessively interested in rejects and weirdos, people who suffered from being misunderstood. (My first book was dedicated to making the case for female culture villains. I did not have to write a book about male culture villains because, well, everyone forgives them anyway.) It felt essential to resist the part of me that enjoyed the pile-on, that took a person’s worst moment or stupidest statement as wholly representative. This project was just as political as my earlier refusal to forgive, and was done for the same reasons. Women were once pressured to accept abuse and forgive their abuser. Now they were required to navigate a world of crowd-sourced mass abuse, one that equated anger and punishment with moral clarity. Either way, they got hurt.

In a culture that prizes loud condemnation, this restraint can read as weakness. It’s true that false “understanding” can substitute for genuine empathy—as in those “humanizing” profiles of neo-Nazis, which politely scoot around the question of how many millions of people the subjects would like to see murdered, or as in those who exhort us to “empathize” with sexual predators who’ve been fired, with no mention of how we should feel about their victims. I still abhor the “forgiveness” of my childhood, in which women (or my brother, with his crowded bedroom) demonstrated their own goodness by refusing to impose consequences. To truly understand a serial harasser, like Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK, requires firing them; it requires understanding that they’re dangerous, and your workplace is unsafe as long as they’re present. Emotional maturity is one thing, but predators are predators. If you understand a shark, you don’t put your hand in its mouth. 

Yet, once consequences have been imposed—once the dangerous people have been fired, cut off, defunded, driven out of restaurants—the process of living with damage begins. Refusing to forgive the men in my life was a way of valuing myself. Staying angry meant that the harm done to me was real, and mattered; it meant that I would never again say I am not worthy. If this is how you feel, I respect it. Don’t try to change it. Forgiveness happens involuntarily, as a kind of psychological climate change; you wake up one day with the rocky shores of your resentment gone, swallowed by the sea. 

This, too, is survival. I have gone over my stories until they no longer hurt me. They’ve smudged, like old newsprint, until I can’t clearly identify the victims or the villains, and everyone looks merely young and silly, even dear. Sure, there are monsters in some pictures. But even monsters have explanations. Monsters become monsters, in fact, by refusing to be curious about the explanations and experiences of others. I survive my father by understanding my father. I choose to see what he cannot, so that he cannot define me. 

I’ve looked up the Jesus boy occasionally over the years. Or I think I have; his name is common. There’s a man in an army uniform; there’s a man whose mother died. The one I think is him is posing for a photo in the desert. He did make it out there. I like to imagine him, like Jesus, wandering the desert and loving everybody. I hope he’s happy. I hope that, like Jesus, he forgives. 

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